FRENCH KISS – Book One – “Wanted: Wife”

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WANTED: WIFE

by  Gwen Jones

Chapter One

Romance is Dead, Sister

 Andy Devine was the last thing I needed in my life next to a punch in the gut, yet that morning I got both.

“Hey Jules!” Denny called from the newsroom. “Take a look at this!”

I grabbed my compact and fixed my lipstick, catching my red-rimmed eyes in the mirror. How could I look at anything when all I could see was scarlet? But I wouldn’t cry, I wouldn’t, sliding Ruby Ruse across my lips, the skyline of Philadelphia reflecting back into my hand. See, Evil had just walked out of this conference room on seven hundred dollar Fratelli Rosseties, the sales slip from Boyd’s still cooling in my wallet.

“Sorry, Julie, but it’s just a bad time for me,” Richard had purred just moments before, his glossy hair swooping dramatically, his baby blues bleeding Sincerity 2.0, his bespoke suit wafting Clive Christian No. 1. His fingers brushed my neck as he leaned in for the chastest of cheek pecks. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t love you. Really, it doesn’t.”

I groped the table for balance. “You’re telling me this now? With two weeks until our wedding?”

Richard’s mouth crooked with such a perfect mix of pity and condescension I almost felt sorry for him. “Julie, sometimes it takes nearly falling into the brink before you know what’s best for you.”

“Now I’m a brink?”

“No!” His eyes widened. “Of course not. You’re wonderful and beautiful and talented—the top reporter at the station!” He palmed his chest. “But I’m just a struggling agent. You don’t need me dragging you down. And I will, if this deal doesn’t pan out.”

I slanted him a glance; self-flagellation fit him as well as polyester. “Seriously, Richard? Then why keep telling me your agency has the biggest talent out of Hollywood? That these gamers you just signed are the hottest around?”

“Julie. Sweetheart.” He clasped my shoulders, eyes hooded. “Being on top only means you hit the bottom harder.”

Wait a minute.  I slinked away. “Why is being on top great for me but terrible for you?”

“You just don’t get it, do you?” He shook his head, leaving for the window.

I looked to my hand, his diamond winking at me with absurd perkiness. Two years we’d been together, sharing the same Rittenhouse Square penthouse, the same bank account, each other’s insurance beneficiaries, our lives so imperceptibly tangled it’d take a blowtorch to break them apart.

“Just what is it I’m supposed to get, Richard? That you don’t want to make that final commitment? That you don’t love me anymore? Or maybe you never did? Maybe we were just mutually handy, equally able to pick up each other’s dry cleaning?” My eyes burned. “But you never thought of me that way, did you? I mean, who could be that shallow? You…” I looked up.  “Richard?”

His shoulders were twitching. I went to the window, spinning him around. “Jesus! Are you tweeting?”

He stared at me, aghast. “I have over 5,000 followers you know!”

“With number one standing right here!”

He had the cheek to finish the tweet before he slipped his phone in his pocket, crossing his arms as he dropped his gaze to look at me. “This is why you’re still traipsing around town chasing midgets instead of murderers. You’re so blinded by minutiae you have no grasp of what’s fundamentally important.”

“But didn’t you just say what a wonderful reporter I am?”

He slipped his hand to my shoulder. “In your own little world, you are, but the truth is…” He inclined his head. “I’m just too intense for you.”

There comes a point where the absurdity of the situation overrides any anger. I shrugged him off. “Let me get this straight. You make your living off of man-children blowing imaginary body parts off of imaginary bodies. You can’t start your day unless you purge, hang by your ankles, and rub some $150 an ounce buttermilk concoction into your Botox-inflicted face, and most of the time you can’t walk five feet without feeding that electronic extension of your over-inflated ego. My goodness, Richard. I guess you must be right. Because if all that doesn’t scream Alpha dog I don’t know what.”

His eyes narrowed. “Now you’re just being petty.”

I wanted to slap him. “And you’re dumping me!”

“Shh.” Richard pulled me aside, tucking in a bit of hair that slipped from my combs. “Julie, what’s the rush to get married anyway? You’re thirty-five, I’m thirty-seven, we have plenty of time. And plenty of time to continue this conversation later. I’m leaving to meet with the MacKenzies in just a little while.”

The gamers? “You were just out in Seattle!”

“I know, but there’s still some rough patches to work out.”

“So send Jarrod.”

“Jarrod isn’t me. This is the biggest deal I’ve ever repped, and I’m not sending an amateur to blow it.” He checked his Breguet. “Damn—I got to go. The MacKenzies are Mariners freaks so we’re meeting at the stadium. As it is I’m running late, and the show—” He shook his head tightly. “I mean the game starts at seven-thirty.

My eyes widened. And so did my understanding. “You mean the opera.”

He blinked. “No, I’m going to a baseball game.”

“No, you’re going to her.” Funny he should’ve mentioned baseball. Because I sure could’ve used a Louisville Slugger right then. His ring would have to suffice. “You bastard. You’re still seeing that diva.” I threw it at him. “Why don’t you give this to her.”

“Don’t be nuts,” he said, snatching it, mid-air. “Annika Eden’s just a client.”

“Who’s always coincidently around whenever you’re going to the coast.” Apparently this was my comeuppance for stealing him away from the opera singer two years earlier. Fact was, that tarty Carmen nearly shoved him at me, and now she wanted him back? At that moment I was feeling very Don Jose, though lacking a dagger, I used whatever I had. “I want your crap out of the apartment before I get home,” I said. “I never want to see a highlighted hair of yours again.”

He laughed. “You want me out of my own place?”

“It’s mine as much as yours. Your father said it was our wedding present.”

“But there doesn’t look like there’s going to be a wedding now, is there?”

He finally got me to gasp. Ten minutes ago I was two weeks away from hooking up with him for life, and now I seemed lost on some distant planet. I stared at him, hardly believing what I was about it say. “Then you’re really breaking up with me?”

He came closer, eyes leaking market-tested sincerity. “Julie, truly, don’t do this. By tomorrow you’ll see it’s better this way. Now, Curtis showed me a row in Society Hill last week that’d be perfect for you. Five minute walk from the station.”

“Last week? You already had me dumped last week?” My God, the city gossips were going to have a field day. “How many people already know?”

“Stop it. Why are you making this so hard?”

“Then why don’t you make it real easy.” I shoved past him. “Drop dead.”

He grabbed my arm. “Am I going to have to call my lawyers?”

I shrugged him off. “Are you threatening me?”

“Will it be necessary?”

I snapped closed my compact—then threw it across the room. Ooh! I thought, burying my face in my hands. How didn’t I see that soprano succubus still commanded a performance out of him? I took out my BlackBerry and Googled Seattle Opera, and sure enough, there was Annika Eden as Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore, opening over the weekend.

I was such an idiot.

“Jules? You okay?”

I turned to Denny, my cameraman, standing in the doorway. “This ought to please you immensely. The wedding’s off.” My God, it hurt even to say it.

He closed the door and pulled me into his sinewy embrace. “The bastard. All those preparations. And that dress! You want I should pound him?”

I buried my face into his neck, his halo of blond curls muffling my rather colorful cursing. Every girl should have a gay man like Denny in their life. Who else would malign the waste of a $8,500 gown as well as offer to do damage to the offender? “No, thanks, sweetie. I do appreciate the thought, though.”

“Hm.” He gave me a squeeze then held me out, his runner’s musculature such a contrast to Richard’s yoga- and colonic-toned sleekness. “So are you done with him this time? Tell me the truth.”

I swiped at my eyes—why couldn’t I cry?— checking my face in the compact Denny had so thoughtfully retrieved. “I’m done with men period.” I kneaded my temple, feeling a headache coming on. “Oh, Denny, why is it every man I hook up with is a lying, self-indulgent infant? Where have all the real men gone?”

“Allowing for your interpretation?” He shrugged. “Unless it’s the kind that burps and farts and mixes stripes and plaids, I don’t know either.”

“They’re a lost race.” Christ, my head hurt. “I need some coffee.”

“What you really need is a diversion. Come and see what Terri’s got for us.”

WPHA Channel 8 News was the highest-rated local news show in the Delaware Valley, which included my hometown Philadelphia and its suburbs, the state of Delaware and all of Southern New Jersey, which roughly meant anything south and east of Trenton. Most of the reporters had a beat, a geographical locale they covered, but not me. My specialty was the offbeat stories featured either at the end of the newscast, or tucked between the 5:30 and 6:00 PM slots, the quirky stuff that kept my finger on the pulse of the local nut base. There wasn’t a free drink or a meal I couldn’t get in this town, though it could be a real pain in the arse just to take a run down Kelly Drive. Julie Knott’s Random Access made sure my email inbox was a veritable cornucopia of all that was one electron short of a refrigerator magnet.

“Julie! Denny! Over here!” Terri, the fiftyish assignments editor and everyone’s favorite mom-figure, waved to us from the other side of the newsroom. We snaked through the desks to find her hunched over a bright yellow, slightly smudged flyer.

“Take a gander at this,” she said, smoothing it. “I had to take a detour on the way to work this morning. Saw this on a utility pole.”

“Don’t you live in the Pine Barrens?” Denny said, referring to the scrubby woods that covered a big chunk of South Jersey. “Out in the sticks?”

“Right on the edge,” she said. “But this detour took me into it. Look.”

ANDY DEVINE SEEKS A WIFE

LANDED, FINANCIALLY-SECURE 40 YR OLD MALE

LOOKING FOR HEALTHY, ATHLETIC  FEMALE

FOR MARRIAGE AND FAMILY.

MUST SUBMIT TO FULL DISCLOSURE AND BE WILLING

TO WORK HARD.

GENEROUS MONETARY COMPENSATION

IF TERMS OF CONTRACT ARE NOT MET.

INTERVIEWS WILL BE HELD AT THE IRON BOG FIREHOUSE

MAIN STREET, IRON BOG

FRIDAY 27 AUGUST 1:00- 4:00 PM

PLEASE BRING ID

“Can you believe it?” Denny said. “It’s positively medieval.”

“I searched all the local sources, Googled him, even checked Twitter and Facebook,” said Terri. “Nothing’s out there on this guy. I have no idea how long the flyer’s been hanging on that pole.” She fingered it. “But it doesn’t look too weathered.”

“Weird,” Denny said. “You’d think someone would’ve picked up on it fast.”

Terri sniffed. “If you were a single gal with ten bucks in your pocket, would you tell anyone?”

“Yeah,” I said, dropping to a chair, “to run in the opposite direction.”

She winced. “Oh no, what’d that bastard do now?”

“Richard bailed,” Denny said. “The wedding’s off.”

Terri sniffed, ever pragmatic. “Why am I not surprised.” She tapped the flyer. “The hell with that jerk, work’s what you need. This has to be the most bizarre yet, so jump back on that horse.”

“Especially since he’s looking for a brood mare,” said Denny. “Hey, why does his name sound familiar?”

“Because it’s the same as the character actor,” Terri said. “Ever see that old John Wayne movie, Stagecoach? Well, Andy Devine was the guy driving it.”

“Oh, that Andy Devine. Tall, chubby, real squeaky voice.” Denny glanced to Terri. “Think they’re related?”

I was feeling nothing but unkind. “Or looks like him?”

“Well, if he looked like John Wayne,” Terri said, “would he be shilling himself at the firehouse?”

“Maybe he’s so hot he’ll need to hose ‘em back,” Denny said.

Terri snickered. “The divine Devine.”

“He’d have to be,” I said. “What sane woman would actually marry someone like this?” I sniffed. “Not like sane and marry should occupy the same sentence.”

Denny leaned in. “So happy you’re not doing bitter. You must have missed the line about ‘generous monetary compensation.’”

“Like citronella to skeeters,” Terri said. “In this economy he’s gonna need a firehose.”

“I’m getting my gear,” Denny said. “If we hurry we can just make it.”

Suddenly I felt trapped in one of my own stories. But as crazy as the whole thing seemed, this Andy Devine was still a man wanting to get married, and how cruel was that? Yet, after so many fits and starts, after so much self-delusion, I should’ve only been surprised if Richard actually went through with it.

I felt Terri’s hand on my shoulder. “Forget about Richard, Julie. He never did deserve you. Trust me, there’s somebody still out there that will, and until he finds you there’s the work. That’s exactly what you need right now.”

“The work…” I said absently. “The work,” like a mantra.

“It’s your one constant.” She came around to face me. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

“No, you’re right.” Dammit, she was. “Like Tara to Scarlett.”

Soon we were crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge out of Philly and into New Jersey. Though apparently, I had fed the GPS an address a little too low tech for high tech.

I slid the GPS back into the holder. “It keeps saying ‘incomplete.’”

“I never liked those things anyway,” said Denny, coming up on Route 73. He pointed toward the glove box. “Get the map. What was the name of that town again?”

“Iron Bog,” I said, smoothing it across my lap. “Terri said to take 70 into Medford, then to the Red Lion Circle and from there we look for some Route 582.”

We passed from city to suburban sprawl to farmland and quite suddenly, into  what is euphemistically known in these parts as the Pines. Covering a quarter of the state to the south, to one outside the region, it could be tough to explain. Most people out of the area think of New Jersey as this cheek-to-jowl succession of refineries, housing and garbage dumps, bordered on one side with crumbling cities and casinos on the other. But that’s a New York City view. From Philadelphia, we see the lower half of the state much differently. If the Jersey Shore is the great cleansing breath we take to clear our city-fied lungs, the Pine Barrens, the wide, mysterious woods we cross to get to it, is the balm that clears our mind first.

Soon we were in the thick of it, deciduous maples and locusts giving way to scrub oak and pitch pine, the shorter, lankier trees which opened up the forest and cooled the hot August air. A bend in the road led us past a cedar marsh, the scent reminding me of my grandmother’s winter coat. I rolled down the window as we lost all sight of houses and habitation, breezes off a big lake chilling us before the woods swallowed us again.

I thought of when my parents would take me and my brother to the Shore as kids, and they’d tell us scary stories about the Jersey Devil, the part-man, part-goat, horseheaded horror that terrorized the Pines. But I couldn’t imagine such a monster right then, with my arm out the window, riding in the current. As I fixed on the trees flicking past, the sandy forest floor littered with needles and laurel and fern, I knew all my demons were right there beside me.

“Look—582.” Denny said.

I straightened, grabbing the map in my lap. “Turn right.”

“Iron Bog, two miles,” he said, glancing to a sign. A few minutes later we rolled into downtown.

Iron Bog didn’t appear much more than a crossroads, with a general store, a gas station, a post office, Town Hall and a shiny little place called The Cranberry Cafe. With geraniums here and there along white picket fences, it seemed the crusty-old Pine Barrens village had taken on a bit of a polish, like the cursory perking-up a house gets when company’s coming. And five hundred or so feet later I’d know why. That’s where the Iron Bog Volunteer Firehouse was, and from the looks of it, the company had arrived.

“Damn, look at that,” Denny said. “There must be a hundred woman in line.”

I leaned into the windshield, squinting. “And the door’s not even open yet.”

He parked the van on the opposite side of the street. “Hurry,” he said, grabbing his equipment. I grabbed mine and scrambled after him.

We passed women of all shapes, sizes and ages, all glammed to the hilt, some with one or two kids. Seeing Denny with his camera, and me, with my mic, they tossed us a few scowls, knowing their secret would now get out. When we finally reached the head of the line, we met a fireman in full uniform.

“Hi, Channel 8 News,” I said. “We’d like to chat with Mr. Devine before you open the door.”

He eyed me skeptically before his mouth widened in a grin. “Hey…you’re Julie Knott! I love your stories. You know, if it were anyone else, I wouldn’t—oh, go on in.”

I gifted him with a smile, on autopilot now. “Many thanks.”

We entered into a vestibule with short hall to the right that led to the truck bay, but straight ahead we could see a large room through a windowed door. Denny already had the minicam hoisted atop his shoulder, but I kept my mic holstered for the moment. If this Devine was as loony as I figured him to be, I thought it best to ask his permission first. My childhood had been peppered with tales about Pineys, crazy backwoods Jethros who shotgunned first and asked questions later. Through the window I could see the back of a man standing behind a table, and all at once a resentment boiled inside me. The work, I thought, the work, and I took a deep breath, my shirt sticking to me in the un-air conditioned hall. I opened the door.

“Hello? Mr. Devine? I’m Julie Knott from Channel 8 News. Might I have a quick word with you?”

When he turned my heart leaped right out my throat.

© Copyright Gwen Jones 2013 All Rights Reserved.

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